Because of Bart’s advice, I’ve changed the background of my page. Hopefully it’s easier to read now.
I’m really happy with this story I’ve just completed. Hopefully it’s good. It’s the longest short story I’ve written in several years so hopefully it deserves its length. Anyrate, any and all criticism/thoughts are welcome and appreciated.
I write about dust a lot and so I guess this is me treading familiar ground. It’s sort of unedited so, um, yeah. Be careful maybe. It’s about dust and life after the end of the world and motherhood and fatherhood and childhood. It’s about 4,200 words and weirdly autobiographical.
Old Skin Dust
Dust collects beneath my bed.
Today through tears my mother told me she doesn’t have cancer. I held her when she threw her arms around me and told her how I love her and how happy I am. She told me that she loves me and kept holding me while she wept.
I remembered dad and thought I was where he should be. Maybe even who he should be. He would’ve made a drink so I made two. Half empty bottle of vodka in the freezer mixed with flat gingerale. It tasted horrible but she didn’t care, too happy and relieved to notice.
To your health, I said and she said I was too young but smiled so big I drank anyway. My eyes watered for it was a truly foul drink but I drank it just so we could have the moment.
I sat with my mother for the rest of the evening and into the night. It snowed. She was happy and I was happy to be there with her, ensuring her memory of beating cancer be coupled with the memory of us together. Make it all look and feel like family. I remembered dad some more, couldn’t stop remembering him, how I was filling in for those big empty boots he left in the hall. Heavy. Every time I see them I pick them up but never put them on. Ten years of this but it sounds like longer but feels shorter. I remember him not as a distant memory but as a ghost, following us around, creaking the floor and doors, getting drunk and singing songs he swore were Prussian.
My mother went to sleep and I brought her water, kissed her forehead, told her I love her. She was drunk and now she snores down the hall while I keep remembering my dad while snow keeps tumbling on down while the vodka disappears while the cold seeps through our faded glass windows.
My mother survived cancer but I didn’t even know. Monday she went to the hospital and spent hours there but was home by the time school ended. She didn’t say a word all week and it’s midnight and school’s in the morning and she’s alive, will keep on being so, but I feel cheated and all day with her I wanted to ask her why she didn’t tell me, why she did it all alone for these last seventy two hours and I know it’d be different if dad were here still but maybe that would be worse.
My mother didn’t have cancer but she survived it. Probably you don’t count as a survivor unless you get chemo and a briefcase full of drugs, but she feels like she survived. She prayed, I guess, all week but never asked me to pray too. She taught me the power of prayer, how praying together makes it doubly powerful, but she prayed alone, in the dark, away from me. Dad prayed. He used to pray all the time, even when he fell apart. But me, I guess it’s never felt right. Always feels like I’m talking to myself in a room full of people. And something about priests makes me nervous, the same way cops startle.
My mother didn’t die and she was never going to but we celebrated like she averted certain disaster and maybe it was the prayer but I feel like a spectator, like this celebration used my body but not anything inside it. She survived and I watched, unaware of the danger, unsure how to respond to the happiness.
For as long as I remember the dust’s been beneath my bed. In kindergarten, I brought an entire jar full of dust for showandtell. So excited, the night before, after my bath, I whispered my question beneath my bed and the dust agreed so I collected as much as I could into an empty jam jar made of glass. It had to be glass the dust told me because it’d get stuck to the plastic and never be able to get out for thousands of years. It sounded terrible so I washed out the jam and filled it with dust. Scrapes on my knees and elbows from crawling around on the uneven and busted woodfloor of our apartment but I didn’t care. Curled up in bed holding the jar in my arms, hearing it move and sing the way dust does, I couldn’t wait to show my teacher, my friends.
I woke up before mother and dad but found dad passed out skeletal on the couch, his breath uneven and sharp. I stood before him for what seemed forever then looking into the large nostrils of his big sharp nose. His dirty shirt draped over him reminded me of dinosaur exhibits from the way his hips and ribs poked at the fabric. His shoulders and elbows had edges like blades. I asked the dust about him but it sang sadly, whispered softly.
Even then I knew it wouldn’t last. The chipped and scorched floor, the disintegrating wallpaper, the almost dying dad. His breath stank and snore screeched but I put my hand over his mouth to make sure it still came. His thin skin almost invisible over bone and sinew, he was my dad and I kissed his calloused hand and ran to the door, opened and closed it quiet as I could.
It snowed then too. It always snows here. Childhood was punctuated by sunshine but defined by the snow. My mother told me that’s what caused my dad to obliterate the way he did: he remembered sunshine, seasons, warmth. It was a different world then, I guess, but it’s one I never made sense of though one I fell in love with. Films from only decades ago when fields of grass, of crops, children wearing short pants, short sleeves. Days without hoods and hats, mittens and coats: they call it the past but it sounded worlds away. The kind of place people of earth would dream of.
But it snowed and I skipped on to school, too excited to keep the jar of dust in my bag so I held it in my hands the whole way. Before the sun rose I was at school and it was dark as we huddled together between spaceheaters and Ms Janovitch led us in song and dance. Childhood was meant for that, for life to be full of gaiety and coloring and stories read. My favorite stories were about animals that acted like people because people acting like people is a waste of breath. She didn’t teach us how to read that year but I figured it out from watching her and staring at books, at all those tiny little words made of tiny little letters. Ink and paper transformed to sound and meaning: that was magic. Real magic.
Showandtell came and the others all brought out their toys: halfcenturyold stuffed animals, building blocks, favorite books and movies, combs, money from before winter, pressed flowers, and even seedlings of forgotten plants. Sitting in a circle bundled up for warmth against the leaking windows, the thinning walls, the broken ceilings, every nose red, every breath visible, they waited for me to reveal an explanation for the jar I never let go of since showing up early.
My turn and I walked to the center of the circle smiling openmouthed, my secret visible for the first time. This, I said holding up the jar above my head, Is dust. It came from under my bed. It’s been there since I first slept there. Since my first memory.
Standing there, holding the jar so high like the greatest treasure, I waited for the response, the shock and awe, the cheer and applause but nothing came. Ms Janovitch asked me what was special about the dust and I told her everything was special about it and that it came from under my bed.
It was then that the looks started. That lingering embarrassment I saw in their faces. The awkward stares. Even then I saw that the world had shifted on me and I was no longer one of them. In one moment, I became other to them. I was proud of my dust and it turned them against me.
Years go by but the dust remains. I stopped talking about it twelve years ago. That day in school was the only time but I still didn’t understand. Maybe I still don’t. I’ve spoken to the dust since I first talked and even before.
My mother tells me I didn’t talk for a long time. She and my dad were worried I was retarded or something, that my brain broke somewhere in the womb or maybe leaving it. For four years they coaxed me every chance they could to say something, to just speak. I guess that’s when he first started crumbling. With every month that went by his cheeks hollowed more, his hair receded, his eyebrows fell out, his gums greyed, and his skin tightened. My mother says it was so gradual she didn’t know for years what was happening to him but looking at pictures makes a different scene. The passage of time ravaged his body. As a young man when first I was born he was tall and handsome, physically strong, muscular with a thick neck, but by the time I got my first communion he had shrivelled into a hairless man with paper for skin and skull in place of a normal head.
The dust told me.
My dad carried a blackhole inside him born from me. When I entered the world I took from him a center and in that place left only absence and that absence sucked him in until he disappeared. As he disappeared into that nothing inside him, dust multiplied.
My memories of the distant past are photographs burnt at the edges flipped through too fast. Lying in bed alone for maybe the first time and hearing the whisper. There was a moon that night, fractured yet swollen, spreading shadows and lights into my bedroom. Creeping from beneath the threadbare blanket I still use, my barefeet against the frigid floor, I dropped to my knees and stared into the blackness. I didn’t say anything because maybe I couldn’t yet but there was a question in me and it was answered by the dust. My questions continued and the dust responded and I learnt from it.
Dust doesn’t speak or sing the way we do. It’s something else beyond words.
When we’re children we know so much more. We hold the world in our eyes and hands and it’s impossibly new for something billions of years old. Communication between the world and us isn’t modulated or refracted by language or custom or culture. We are one with it, in it. We are not above or separate from nature, but a curious scientist wandering through as it sloshes in around and through us. As we investigate the world, it investigates us.
My oldest memories are all dust. Dust flowing, flying, singing, dancing, teaching. I sat in the dark with the dust and it showed me who I am. What dust is but when asked to explain it all falls apart. That’s what happened that day in class. I was dust and dust was me but then language broke in: humanity trampled upon its own legacy.
What is special about dust? Why did you bring that here?
The disturbed dreams of a deranged boy in a deserted world. That’s what their looks told me then, what their gossip and stares still teach me. Probably I am different than most but not because of my choosing. They say I never grew up and I hear only compliments in their contempt.
Growing up is the violent act of severing oneself from earth and tying oneself to the simulated reality of language and custom.
I can no longer speak to the dust as I once did, but use words. I have forgotten how to speak in learning how to talk.
My mother and dad were so happy when first I said words. They were afraid so long about the bills of special needs care, about what would become of me in this wintry world, and it was almost time to send me to school. The secret of their defective combined genetics would soon be public knowledge and shame would be all they had to show for my birth. But finally I spoke a few months shy of my fifth birthday. The funny thing is that none of us remembered what I said and probably it didn’t matter. Probably it was nothing at all. Our first and last words never matter, only the ones in between. I was smothered with hugs, kisses, tears. I learnt then to do things for other people because happiness matters.
I learnt sacrifice the day I found I could no longer speak to the dust as I once had. I cried violently. Thrashing and screaming, afraid I had lost myself, cutoff from the dust. My mother tried to console me and eventually I ran out of tears, my throat raw, my eyes puffy. Dad was drunk staring at the snow’s reflection in the television listening to a song about a snake who shucks off its skin to become new and whole again over the internet and I remember him crying but I don’t know if that part’s true.
Ragged and hopeless, my mother lay me down, turned off the light, closed the door and left. Moonless, the darkness absolute, I heard my mother and dad talking. He blamed me for something. I remember the sentiment but not the words but that was far away as it turned to yelling. I rolled from my bed and crawled beneath it, my cheeks still wet from tears. Dust collected on my skin, not only on the trails of tears but everywhere. It surrounded me and covered me. Then it vibrated until I was dry and warm. It sang to me and with every breath I took it swelled inside me.
I woke with my mother yanking me out from under my bed and wiping the dust from my tired body while I cried, watching it flit through the air while my mother complained of the mess.
My mother sleeps still. Chubby yet malnourished, she subsists on cheap liquor and handouts from strange men. There are photographs of her on a beach barely clothed, her feet in waves and the sun bloated and red behind her. Beautiful and happy and young. Beside her is another girl whose name I don’t know but I know she was my aunt. She died when winter came. A lot of people did. A lot of people still do. All the pictures of the person my mother is were taken before my birth.
I almost killed her. Something my dad told me often. I know he loved me but I think he resented me. My mother never regained her figure or the brightness of summer. Even after winter started, when my parents married, she carried summer with her.
That’s what they all say, anyway. I’ve seen the pictures and she’s beautiful. In the videos she dances and sings in ways I’ve never seen or heard. To me she’s always been my mother, barely real but the only real thing. Homely and careless, she no longer resembles who she is and probably this pains her even more than what happened to my dad.
But when I was born I almost killed her. If I was born in another time, according to my dad, we’d both be dead. It’s hard to imagine someone dying from giving birth but summer’s children are always a mix of nostalgia and fear. Those of us born in winter have no fond memories of a bright and energetic world. There is only the wonder of snow, the transcendence of temporary warmth, and the sublime feeling when there’s enough food for everyone. It makes me drunk even thinking about it. To be full.
I was too large, to put it a certain way, for my mother. So tiny, my mother, holding me inside her, reluctant to enter the world and leave her. I suppose I’ve never really left her. Physically, yes, but emotionally, never. But I was too large, or my head was, and it was too late to cut me out so she had to force me out. Over the course of nineteen hours, I found the world beyond her womb and she survived.
The trauma I caused that day led to the cancer scare of this one.
I almost killed her twice but have never been aware or conscious of either threat. She was beautiful and happy before my birth. She had a man she loved, had looks and intelligence and a future of promise, and then I came, swallowed her light, swallowed her man, swallowed her life. Closing the door, she snores through the walls but I could stick my finger through the wall if I tried. The neighbors sleep now too and the snow falls. In my room I lie down beside my bed and cry, asking the dust.
My dad believed himself to be Prussian in a world where authenticity died, where nations and borders fell beneath meters of snow and ice.
He grew up in a world divided arbitrarily and he chose his ancestry from a book his father gave him about their geneology. He found his name as a footnote on a page near the back. It was the first time he saw his name written in a book and it made a powerful impression. Though the nation he belonged to called itself Mexico, he called himself Prussian and spent his life resurrecting a dead language. His father spoke German and his father’s father came from a nation called Germany but my dad didn’t want German: he wanted Prussian. He studied languages and found other Prussians, language builders who spoke Prussian and rebuilt it into a workable language. My dad found a dream that was his whole life and he helped bring back the dead. By the age of twenty he was not only fluent in a language he and a few others reconstructed from the phoneme up, but he was a public figure for the things he wrote and the things he did.
Then winter came and he met my mother. The dreams of that world were not for snow. He kept it alive and taught it to me but when he met my mother his life took on new hues of light. Though all was lost he found her and with her, the dismal outlook evaporated. My mother tells me how desperate he was in those days. The bouts of drinking and casual suiciding and all the anger and fear that was in him. She taught him how to live again. He was a man always looking backwards, devoted to the dead and his past, but she turned him around, showed him the beauty of shadows and night and snow.
He lived again for her but his past tortured him bitterly. All is ice and snow and he fell apart. Disintegrating until he simply ceased to be.
I never found his body. No one did. He grew frail as the years wore on. By the time I was twelve he could no longer walk without aid, could barely hold his head up. He never looked old, only dead. And he looked deader and deader until life left him.
But still the dust remains.
The rhythm and harmony: dust.
There was a girl I once loved or believed I did. I love her still, or imagine I do. The dust is quiet on this matter but when I listened first to her heart beat against my ear I heard that familiar whispering song. Not in her heart but between the beats, maybe in the blood or in the lungs.
I’ve learnt that my first love is like every other first love. I feel light and hear music when she’s around. She saves me from the otherness of my ostracised life. In truth, her eyes see me. They see me not with contempt or fear but like I’m human too.
She was there the day I brought dust to school. She’s been there for every school moment of these long ten years. Gawky as a child, she aged into her beauty. Thin and dark, her blackness shined against the snow the way the night stands out against the whitened earth. Lisping even as an almost adult, she spoke to me as friend first a few years after my dust induced isolation. My first and only friend but always in secret. We dug in snow, made militias of men. Soldiers we saw in movies made in the old world. She amazed me. Her hand against snow was not like mine. I piled it or threw it together, but she wove it, created it. I made men of snowballs but she sculpted men from snow. While most of us added to create image, hers was one of deletion. Even when only ten, she had a different relationship to the world around us. She saw between the cracks of this world, saw the beauty in the dying husks of the carried over civilisation.
If we’re to have a future, she said, We need to stop remembering how the world once was and modelling life on it. We live in a fundamentally altered state and so we must adapt at a fundamental level. Every building we live in crumbles away and falls apart because we create things for a world that no longer exists. If humans are to survive, we must stop bemoaning the world we live in and adapt to it. I hear always how you, our teachers, our parents, our leaders decry winter. You long for summer but summer is gone. As are spring and fall. My generation only understands these words abstractly. The world you want to return to is one we don’t understand and one that no longer exists. It may never exist again. You are handicapped by memory and if you want that world now dead, then die along with it, but at least be kind enough to move out of the way so we may build a new life for this new world.
That was the last day I saw her. She spoke at the general assembly only a month ago and now she is being raised as an architect for the future. Word spreads fast and her short statement spread over the world live and then was rebroadcast for days.
That night she whispered to me that she loved me and I told her to listen. We lay in bed, my bed, and the dust drifted from beneath. In the moonlight it created a haze and as our bodies spoke it sang in whispers electric against the base of my spine.
Do you think I can do it, she said and I kissed her. You can do anything. You will make this world ours.
She snuck out the way she came: through my window, down the fire escape. I never asked her about the dust and she didn’t say anything about the way it surrounded us that night.
The dust listens to my tears and sticks to me once more. This is ritual. This is worlds colliding.
The snow transitions to hail and my mother wakes, stumbles to the toilet and I hear her gasp against the coldness and then the sound of her urinating. The neighbors cough and start the water heater. Morning already. Another sleepless night. An important night for my family, such as it is.
Today we begin again. My mother is alive and will continue to live. She made promises to change, to be better, to stop crying about the way the world has fallen apart in her lifetime. She will pray for the future instead of waiting for the apocalypse.
I waited my whole life for the apocalypse, she said, but when it came it didn’t end.
On my computer they’re rebroadcasting her short speech in preparation for her first statement since stepping into public life. They call her the Architect and my heart slips through the floor to rest deeper than the snow. The dust rises and swirls around the glow of the screen, dancing, singing. I stand and it hurricanes around me in the faint electric light, not touching me but warming me, promising me, answering questions I’m afraid to ask and tears burst from me and when I inhale it rushes in.
I know, I say putting on dad’s boots. I know.
And I open the window and start running.